A role reversal as former colonies meet former colonists at Ibero-American summit

Spain and Portugal, once the heavy hitters in the annual meeting of Iberian and Latin American nations, are now looking to their one-time colonies for help amid their debt crisis.

Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters
Ibero-American foreign ministers pose for a group photo during the 22nd Ibero-American summit in Cadiz, Spain, today. Leaders meeting at the summit face a relationship that has changed profoundly in the past few years, with impoverished Spain and Portugal hoping that booming Latin America can help lift them out of economic crisis.

On Friday in the historic Spanish port city of Cádiz, the leaders of Spain, Portugal, and Latin American nations gathered for the 22nd annual Ibero-American summit. But unlike past meetings, the European nations are no longer running the show: now the former colonists are seeking help from their empowered cousins.

The tables have turned since the 2007 edition, when King Juan Carlos infamously said “Why don’t you be quiet” to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in a moment which came to represent Spain’s arrogance and Latin American muscle flexing. Today, Spain and Portugal are in dire economic shape and will remain crippled for at least another couple of years, if not more.

In contrast, Latin America is consolidating its political and economic transition toward stability, despite strong headwind from the global slowdown. Eighteen heads of state will attend, including economic powerhouses Brazil and Mexico, as well as the rising emerging powers Chile, Colombia, and Peru.

The main goal of the summit is to “propel renewed relations,” Prince Felipe, Spanish heir to the throne, said recently, echoing the message pushed by organizers. Relations can be transformed by strengthening ties already in place and by “opening new frontiers that are good in this juncture that Spain and Portugal are living,” said Enrique Iglesias, the Ibero-American secretary general, in a Q&A published in Spanish media this week.

Spanish press described it more succinctly as the country seeking a “lifejacket” from Latin America.

The economic imperative

Spain’s economy has been free-falling since the crisis began in 2007, only managing to pull off discreet growth in 2011. Record unemployment tops 25 percent and continues to rise, and most forecasts expect further acute economic contraction in 2012 and 2013, with only modest recovery thereafter.

Portugal is in worse shape, and its finances are already being supervised by the European Union and International Monetary Fund after requesting a bailout.

But Spain’s economy is much larger and its downturn reverberates much more globally. Spain’s biggest banks and companies are already making most of their profit in Latin America rather than at home; its government is seeking, not offering, foreign investment; and perhaps most telling of all, Spaniards are increasingly migrating to Latin America, not the other way around.

Indeed, that is actually one of Spain’s best arguments for greater cooperation with Latin America, Mr. Iglesias said. “Now there is emigration to Latin America of qualified human capital” that the region can profit from. Additionally, “now there is capital in Latin American that can be mobilized” as investment to Spain and Portugal.

The main goal of the summit, organizers say, is to reach an agreement on how to increase multilateral cooperation of small- and medium-sized companies, which account for 95 percent of the companies on both sides of the Atlantic and for 60 percent of the labor force.

Latin America, with a population of 550 million, has made impressive strides to reduce poverty this century, down from 50 percent to around 30 percent, while middle classes have increased around 50 percent and continue to swell, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, poverty is increasing in Spain and Portugal.

But then again, few – not even Spaniards – have high hopes of a breakthrough during the summit. The gathering is “symbolic,” said Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on arriving.

“That’s one of the things us country leaders have to think about, that our people get tired of us attending so many summits, while they are facing so many abysses.”

Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz.

No shows

Argentina and Venezuela, along with Cuba, Uruguay, Guatemala, and Paraguay will be no shows. 

Cuba’s Raul Castro and Mr. Chávez declined the invitation, as they have for years, in Chávez’s case since his faceoff with the king. Argentina, Uruguay, and Guatemala excused themselves for health reasons, although relations with Buenos Aires have been frosty ever since Argentina's expropriation of the majority stake in its biggest oil producer, YPF, owned by Spain’s Repsol.

Paraguay was politely asked not to come after South American countries, including Brazil, had threaten to boycott the summit otherwise. Most Latin American countries do not recognize Paraguay’s ruling regime after a dubious impeachment in the country that forced the former elected leader to resign.

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